Toddler Cognitive Development: And then the questions began.

(Note: Because we’re working on raising the kid Japanese/English bilingual, pretty much all my conversations with him these days are about 99% in Japanese. I render everything below in English for simplicity’s sake.)

So the kid’s thing, recently, has been questions. We have yet to get to the big one (“Why?”), and he still seems to have a little trouble with the whole idea of what a question word actually does because sometimes I’ll ask him “what” or “which” of several options and he’ll answer “No!” (That could just be him being ornery, though.) But he has started asking questions.

One of them is about shapes. As in, he’ll see a truck and he’ll ask what shape it is. We quiz him a lot about things such as shapes, colors, and numbers, so maybe he just thinks that’s what you do for conversation. Or maybe he’s genuinely asking for information to help categorize the world. It may not help that sometimes I give simple 2D answers – e.g. the truck is a rectangle – and sometimes I give more complicated answers – e.g. the truck is “box-shaped.”

His absolute favorite question right now, though, is “What is [noun] doing?” We still see woodchucks on a near-daily basis, and we count them, but now he asks what each woodchuck was doing when we saw it. (The answer is usually “eating, probably.”) He’ll remember a spider that we saw and ask what it’s doing (“Hunting insects to eat, probably.”) He’ll note that his mother is somewhere else and ask what she’s doing. (“I don’t know. Reading, maybe.”)

It gets a bit weird sometimes. Remember that truck? He asks what it was doing. Fair enough; it was driving. It was carrying things somewhere. Next… remember how he asked about the truck’s shape and I told him it was a rectangle? He asks what the rectangle was doing. I’m at a bit of a loss… the rectangle was being a property of the truck? And puddles. What are puddles doing? Just sitting there, mostly. Existing.

It’s not that I can’t answer the question; it’s that I can’t answer it in a way that’s going to be even remotely comprehensible to a two-year-old. And I don’t want to delve too much into anthropomorphizing things by ascribing recognizable actions to inanimate objects or qualities that are not in fact “acting” in a way that English is really built to discuss.

Finally, he asks if people are happy. We’re working on labeling and discussing feelings so that he can understand when he (or someone else) is mad or sad and deal with it in a productive way. But one of the unintended consequences of this strategy is that multiple times a day he’ll try to confirm with me パパ嬉しい? (“Are you happy, Papa?”)

My base response is that I’m happy that he’s with me and doing okay. I’ll more enthusiastically tell him I’m happy when he’s done something especially good or well, like pee in the potty or clear his pencils up properly. I’ll also admit when I’m upset, especially if he’s done something bad like throwing stuff around. He’s pretty sensitive, though – a couple of times me saying I’m not happy has been met with actual tears. It’s possible that he fears some sort of punishment and is crying to avoid it, so that’s something we need to watch out for – people’s unhappiness should mostly be associated with offering comfort and searching for solutions, not the immediate overwhelming need to stave off some sort of backlash or harm from the upset person.

That said, overall he’s cheerful, he’s curious, he’s super into books, and if this level of sass and Drang is as bad as his “terrible twos” get then we’ll have been pretty lucky. The kid’s got an interesting summer coming up. He’ll turn three and we’ll be moving to another town, among other things. We’ll see how it goes.

About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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